How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism (Part One)

As people here on the west coast are getting ready for the April 6 Transmedia Hollywood conference to be held at the USC Cinema School (hint, hint – tickets still available), my old colleagues on the East Coast — the fine folks in the Futures of Entertainment Consortium (formerly the Convergence Culture Consortium) which I helped to establish back at MIT — released a significant new white paper which calls for more critical engagement with what does and does not work in the current generation of transmedia entertainment.

Geoffrey Long, an alumni of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, was part of a remarkable cohort of students who helped me work through some of the core ideas in Convergence Culture and who have continued to engage with issues of transmedia in their professional lives. Long, from the start, has asked some of the most thoughtful questions about the aesthetics and poetics of transmedia as a mode of storytelling, and some of that core thinking comes together here in an especially powerful way. I hope to see many of you at the Transmedia Hollywood conference in just a few weeks but in the meantime, Long’s white paper gives us all something to chew on. Talk amongst yourselves.

2011 C3 Research Memos and White Paper Series

edited by Prof. Henry Jenkins, Prof. William Uricchio and Daniel Pereira

How to Ride a Lion:

A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism

by

Geoffrey Long

Futures of Entertainment Fellow

Alumni Researcher for the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3)

(Author’s Note: Since this paper was originally authored in 2010, I’ve been delighted to discover an increasing amount of transmedia critics. Whose analysis of transmedia projects do you most enjoy? Please let us know in the comments! -GL)

PART 1 of 3

Executive Summary

As we move past the “Transmedia 101″ stage of definitions and early experiments, the next stage of development for transmedia experiences may require transmedia criticism.

Such a move is not without its challenges. Transmedia criticism is inherently difficult (Should transmedia criticism only focus on transmedia’s unique characteristics? Should it evaluate how well each individual component performs as an example of its medium? Must a transmedia critic be ‘fluent’ in every medium in a franchise?), and unleashing a horde of vicious critics on a medium still in its infancy could be horrifically damaging. There’s also the question of where such criticism might ideally begin, as it is likely to evolve in three distinct directions – first in an industry-educating role like that of E.W. Sargent in the early days of cinema, second in an “educate the public sphere” role like that of early literary criticism in 18th-century England, and third in the lonelier role of isolated education to which literary criticism eventually found itself exiled.

Despite these issues, a robust system of transmedia criticism will be well worth the difficulty. As the future of entertainment becomes increasingly dominated by transmedia experiences, the entertainment industry will require both more informed practitioners (who will need both insights into leading transmedia experiences and a shared language of transmedia akin to the language of cinema) and a broader audience for transmedia as a medium (who will need ways to find new transmedia experiences and recommendations of which are worth their time). All of these breakthroughs can be attained through a robust transmedia criticism.

1. Introduction

Good.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this one weird word. ‘Good’ is a horrible word, really, because it’s not only wholly subjective, it’s also inherently subjective, fleeting, and hyperlocalized. What I think is good might be garbage to you, what was good yesterday isn’t good today or what’s good today may be passé tomorrow, and what’s good in Los Angeles may be worthless in Tokyo or even in the next building over.

Yet ‘good’ is also an intensely powerful word. In 2006 I wrote a white paper for the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3) in which I half-jokingly declared that Rule One for creating anything is “Don’t Suck.” The awkward truth at the heart of that joke is that in order for a work to succeed it must first be good. This brings us back to the subjective, fleeting, hyperlocalized nature of ‘good’, and round and round we go.

And yet, as maddening as the pursuit of ‘good’ can inherently be, this is where both transmedia production and transmedia studies must go next. The majority of the papers written and talks given about transmedia to date have focused on defining the terminology or recounting early experiments: “this is what we think transmedia is, and this is how we’re tinkering with it”. A lot of this is Transmedia 101, or, when we’re lucky, Transmedia 201. What we need now is Transmedia 701, 801 and 901, to tell us how to create good transmedia experiences, how to succeed at transmedia as a medium in and of itself.

Measuring transmedia success objectively will require some form of transmedia metrics, to tell us which transmedia experiences are gathering audiences, retaining audience attention, converting new audiences in one medium into fans that pursue the experience into additional media, and so on. Alas, we’re not there yet. For now, we must satisfy ourselves with subjective forms of success, observing tactics adopted by various transmedia experiences and evaluating how well they appear to function in the service of the whole. We can also attempt to evaluate how well a particular transmedia experience succeeds as a transmedia experience by setting a number of tightly-defined criteria for evaluation, and then determining how closely the subject under examination adheres to those criteria – but attempting to do so for any medium, much less one as early in its infancy as transmedia, may be a fool’s errand. The edges of any medium (and, arguably, any definition) will always remain what Samuel R. Delaney calls a ‘fuzzy set’, and so a fixed definition of ‘transmedia’ will always be as elusive as a fixed definition of ‘film’ or ‘comics’.[1]

This isn’t to say that pushing and pulling at the boundaries of a definition isn’t a worthwhile pursuit – such experimentation is what leads to the expansion of any enterprise, and often leads to the creation of wholly new types of things. Some folks will happily bicker for years over whether a truly transmedia experience has to have community involvement, whether all Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) are transmedia experiences, if it’s really transmedia if it’s just a jump from a digital version of a comic to a print version of a comic, ad infinitum and ad nauseum.[2]

Yet there are now a sufficient number of us playing in this particular sandbox that we can move on to more advanced debates. We can stop pointing to examples of what transmedia storytelling is or is not, and start creating some in-depth, insightful criticism of what we consider to be good or bad examples of what we call transmedia, why we consider them to be so, and what they did that appears to have worked. In his Cute Manifesto, comics artist and theorist James Kochalka states:

Art is not a way of conveying information, it’s a way of understanding information. That is, creating a work of art is a means we have of making sense of the world, focusing to make it clearer, not a way of communicating some understanding of the world that we already hold. (Kochalka 2005)

This is similar to the role that transmedia criticism can play in our understanding of this emerging medium. Kochalka’s comment could easily be remixed into the following:

Transmedia criticism is not a way of conveying knowledge about transmedia, it’s a way of understanding transmedia. That is, transmedia criticism is a means we have of making sense of this new medium, focusing to make it clearer, not a way of communicating some understanding of transmedia that we already hold.

Simply put, we don’t yet know enough about transmedia to communicate firm, definitive truths about it that we already hold. However, this demonstrates the value of engaging in such analysis now, while general understanding of – and the creative practices in – transmedia is still relatively malleable. We should engage in earnest transmedia criticism now to gain a clearer focus, a better understanding, and ideally both a broader audience for transmedia and deeper, richer, more engaging, more profitable, and generally better transmedia experiences overall.

This explorative tactic is my chosen approach for this extended essay. The pages that follow include a few examples of what transmedia criticism already exists and draw on a history of criticism and examinations of criticism in other media (particularly comics and film) to lend them some context. By the end, this essay will have sketched out who’s calling for such transmedia criticism, what role transmedia criticism might play and why it’s important, where such criticism might be found, who might do it, and where might be a good place to start.

Some of us – especially those of us familiar with the work of the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3)[3] – are starting already, groping around in this dark direction. While I wouldn’t call the recently-published doctoral theses of either Derek Johnson[4] or Christy Dena[5] transmedia criticism per se, both documents make me long to read what criticism Johnson and Dena would write given the chance. Therein lies the problem – some of this work exists, but we need more of it – a lot more – and we need it quickly and broadly disseminated. This essay is designed as a resource for those of us already thinking about transmedia criticism, to help us step up and write that criticism and get it out there where it can start to do some real good.

At the end of the day, all of this Transmedia 101-level “This is what transmedia is, and this is how we’re experimenting with it” panels and papers feel a bit like “There’s this thing called a lion, and this is how we poked it with a stick.” The challenge is to go further: not just “this is how to tame a lion” further, not just “this is how to ride a lion” further, but “this is how to ride a lion well”. We have proven the existence of lions. There are plenty of people out there who are not only starting to ride lions, but are getting really good at riding lions. It’s time we point out who’s riding their lions through fire – and to tell the world why that’s so amazing.

2. Who’s Calling for Transmedia Criticism?

I once had a conversation with a high-ranking executive who was a transmedia skeptic. I was describing how important this notion of transmedia was becoming to the future of experiences, until he cut me off. “If it’s so important,” he said, “why aren’t I hearing people calling for it?”

The first response that sprang to mind was Henry Ford’s famous quote about how if he had only listened to what people were asking for, he would have built a faster horse. My second dismissed candidate was that people are calling for it – but then I realized that these people calling for transmedia experiences are themselves already converts, and are in fact calling for more advanced transmedia experiences. The response I chose? Those familiar with transmedia experiences are calling for more, and those who aren’t just haven’t been properly introduced to good transmedia experiences yet.

Not unsurprisingly, the same thing can be said of transmedia criticism. In a recap of the March 2010 Transmedia Hollywood event, journalist David Bloom wrote:

Fans are eating up all the cryptic, dystopian alternate-reality game experiences and spinoff comic books and book-length novelizations, participants said. But just as importantly, what once were just marketing-driven afterthoughts now often are aesthetic achievements that stand on their own. The only questions (and they’re big ones) are deciding what counts as a success, based on what criteria, and judged by whom.

…One audience member tartly observed that, “Anything that is concerned with ROI (return on investment) isn’t art.” Yes, he clearly hadn’t talked to a studio executive in a long time (despite saying he was in the middle of post-production on a science-fiction film). But his point went to a core question of the day, one panelists didn’t really answer: how do you evaluate a transmedia project’s success? Is it artistic/aesthetic? If so, is it judged on its own merits, or just on how it connects and fleshes out the connected “mothership” project, typically a film or book? Should it be judged on financial terms, like a stand-alone book or movie or videogame? If it is financial, is that based only on what the project cost? Or do you have to figure out how to measure what it did for the mothership? How do you value a transmedia project that keeps fans engaged in a major franchise during the lulls between new mothership arrivals? What Hollywood suit is equipped to pencil this one out? And, in the wake of widespread layoffs by print publications of their film, music, TV and theater critics, who’s qualified to make any judgments on aesthetic or financial grounds (ahem, Variety, we’re looking at you, again)? If, as with some recent projects, it’s an elaborate creation that ties together multiple web sites, phone numbers, video material, documents, puzzles and more, who’s going to work through all that, and decide how it rates?[6]

Transmedia designer Brooke Thompson voiced similar concerns in a June 1, 2010 blog post called “A Criticism on the Lack of Criticism”:

It strikes me that one of the biggest problems hindering the growth of transmedia (and all the various things that fall under it, such as ARGs) is the absolute lack of critical looks at projects. That’s not to say that criticism doesn’t exist – it does, but it’s scattered in conversations and hidden in forum posts or mailing lists. And it is, usually, not about a project as a whole and, instead, focuses on a single issue or is a broad look at the field.

Thompson is referring to the nascent form of transmedia criticism on the message boards of sites like Unfiction or ARGNet (both of which specialize in alternate reality games) and in the blog posts of individuals like Andrea Phillips (another transmedia artist) and Christy Dena (a prominent transmedia scholar). More on their attempts to address this need appear in sections V and VI of this paper, but the main point is that calls for criticism are being issued by fans, practitioners and scholars.

Such calls for criticism have been issued in other media before. In fact, the subtitle of this extended essay pays homage to an article called “A Call for Higher Criticism” published in October of 1979 in The Comics Journal #50. In it, the author pleads:

First, let me make it clear that I’m not trying to promote a standard for “fan” criticism or “professional” efforts. I write this in the hope that I might make discoveries when I read criticism of comics art, and not merely read opinions of an issue, a story, or a creator. What criticism of our medium needs is a frame of reference, and a sustained level of introspection.

The author was a young comics writer and DC editorial staff member named Paul Levitz, who happened to go on to serve as the President of DC Comics from 2002 until 2009. Levitz was calling for a comics criticism that transcended mere reviews of individual stories and included more insightful examinations into the context in which those stories existed. As Levitz concluded:

Many professional comics writers and artists, for whatever reasons, think no further about their work than the job they’re currently finishing. Many others, of course, give deep and intense thought to the medium they use. Many critics of comics criticize issues or stories as the be-all and end-all. Few take the time to consider the bigger picture, and to make criticisms that can give both readers and professionals lasting insight into what they do. It’s this lasting insight that is a critic’s opportunity to make changes in a field – changes great enough to last beyond his lifetime.

…Look back over the numberless thousands of comics you’ve read when next you criticize a single one. Consider the context, not as an excuse, but as explanation – or at least as the raw data of which an explanation can be made. Communicate your likes and dislikes not on the level of “loved panel seven of page eight,” but on a level of theory that may revolutionize the thinking of someone who reads your criticism. That’s your golden opportunity to use your critic’s throne to change the future, because all you have to do is communicate one ever-so-special thought to the right person at the right time, and you might help genius reach fulfillment. And wouldn’t that be a nice change?

A number of established critics stepped up to answer that question, and The Comics Journal published their responses to Levitz’ article in the very next issue. The tone of these replies was predictably mixed. Pierce Askegren, for example, noted that “Levitz should bear in mind the comparative youth of comics, comics fandom and comics fans; maturity comes to institutions more slowly than it does to individuals.” It’s Bill Sherman’s response, though, that bears the most relevance to our current purposes:

We should make a distinction here between reviewing and criticizing. Reviews ask – and, one hopes, answers – the simple question: “Is this piece of art worth my time?” In a review the writer acts as an educated consumer, giving a context for his opinion (which may involve history as well as some critical comments) and then telling readers his answer to that question. Most reviewing is by nature ephemeral, though if a writer is consistent and works long enough without taking the easy way out (overusing the cursory cop-outs Levitz mentions, for example), he will produce criticism of a general sort. An example of this happening might be James Agee’s series of movie reviews in the ’40s: collected, they provide an excellent critical overview of the period.

Criticism speaks to a larger audience: both consumers and those artists willing to look and think about what they and their cohorts are or have been doing. It’s analytical, tries to figure out how a piece of art works in relation to other pieces of art, and to a degree it ignores the question of “Is this worth my time?” “Of course it is,” criticism says, although that answer may not imply the work being criticized is any good in the critic’s eyes, only important. Criticism is lengthier and usually takes a degree of distancing… It takes time for critical vision to develop, which is why so many highly touted favorites have been known to lose their sheen after several years’ perspective. For all its analytical value criticism frequently lacks a journalistic sense of what’s happening now.

Where does this leave us? With the need for both good criticism and good reviewing, with the need for reviewers with enough critical/historical insight to produce writing that – while short of Levitz’s ideal – carries thought behind it, with the need for creators who aren’t afraid to have their work looked at from a consumer’s point of view and who aren’t lackadaisical about the critical process. Levitz’s call is just, but there’s need for good thoughtful writing on all levels of analysis.

Sherman is absolutely right. The type of criticism Levitz calls for – the deep, insightful examination of how a piece of work is built and the context in which it was made – is intensely useful to practitioners, but it might be overkill for general audiences curious to know whether something is worth their time – and this question takes on even more importance when dealing with transmedia franchises that represent massive time investments in order to consume the whole thing.[7]

This suggests that instead of merely ‘transmedia criticism’, what we need is actually both a type of ‘transmedia criticism’ and a form of ‘transmedia reviews’. A richer, deeper understanding of transmedia among academics and professionals may require an equally rich, deep form of transmedia criticism, which develops its own language of transmedia akin to the language of cinema (more on that later), wrestles with the lasting import of any particular example of transmedia (in other words, debates the existence of and admission into some form of transmedia canon) and enjoys all the delightful tensions between industry and academia inherent therein.

At the same time, broadening the audience for transmedia experiences may require transmedia reviews, which concern themselves more directly with communicating to the general public (and the generally curious) which transmedia experiences are worth their time and money – and, ideally, which components of those franchises will be the most interesting to a given sub-section of the audience, which component would be the best place to start, and so on. There’s clearly a place for both such criticism and such reviews, but it is the combination of the two which will most likely result in both better transmedia and a broader audience for it.[8]

The task at hand, then, is to sketch out not just a form of transmedia criticism, but an ecosystem of transmedia criticism, one that’s broad enough to include both criticism targeted at educating the industry and reviews broadening the public. Such a combination might finally provide the ideal answer to the question posed by the executive at the beginning of this section: to hear more people calling for transmedia, first you have to produce something worth wanting, and then show them why they want it.

(Next: What Role Might Transmedia Reviews Play?)

Geoffrey Long is a media analyst, scholar, and author exploring transmedia experiences and emerging entertainment platforms at Microsoft. Geoffrey received his Master’s degree from the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, where he served as a media analyst for the Convergence Culture Consortium and a researcher for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Through his work with the Convergence Culture Consortium, Geoffrey authored “How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism” and “Moving Stories: Aesthetics and Production in Mobile Media”. His personal site is at geoffreylong.com, he can be reached at glong@geoffreylong.com, and he can be found on Twitter as @geoffreylong.

WORKS CITED:

[1] For an example of what a nightmare this is, see the ongoing debate over Scott McCloud’s famous definition of ‘comics’.

[2] We should let them do so. For many of them, tenure depends on it.

[3] http://www.convergenceculture.org/aboutc3/

[4] A version of the ideas in Johnson’s thesis can be found in his C3 White Paper: “Learning to Share: The Relational Logistics of Media Franchising” -

[5] Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments -

[6] http://www.thewrap.com/television/blog-post/critical-shortfall-who-rates-transmedia-15492

[7] More on this in section V.

[8] Over a quarter-century later, a new generation of comics scholar-critics have emerged to answer Levitz’ call. One such critic is Douglas Wolk, who has written comics criticism for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon and Rolling Stone. In his 2007 book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, Wolk writes, “…It’s my responsibility as a critic to be harsh and demanding and to subject unambitious or botched work to public scorn, because I want more good comics: more cartoonists who challenge themselves to do better, and more readers who insist on the same” (Wolk 22). One hopes it won’t take nearly as long to generate the ecosystem of transmedia criticism I’m lobbying for here.